By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
As if Russian strongman Vladimir Putin didn’t have enough problems with a shrinking economy, restive population, grumpy elites, declining legitimacy, international isolation, and a lost war. To make things worse, the Russian Federation’s non-Russian nations may be on the verge of asserting themselves as sovereign actors and accelerating its collapse. The irony would be too sweet: In attacking Ukraine, Putin could wind up dismantling Russia, thereby demonstrating that unintended consequences can be deadly.
The Free Nations of Russia Forum (FNRF) is the émigré non-Russian political grouping that hopes to replace the Russian Federation with a series of independent states. The FNRF was founded in 2022 by Ilya Ponomarev, an ex-member of the Russian Duma who opposed Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and denounced his invasion of Ukraine in 2022. A vociferous opponent of the Russian dictator and his fascist regime, Ponomarev currently resides in Ukraine.
The Forum has met five times, with the last meeting taking place in Brussels — in the European Parliament’s Paul-Henri Spaak Building — in late January 2023. Two members of the Parliament’s European Conservatives and Reformists Group (former Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Anna Fotyga and Kosma Złotowski, former member of both chambers of the Polish parliament) hosted and moderated the event, which discussed the following topics: Imperial Ideology (From Muscovy to the Russian Mir); Conquest and Exploitation (from Ivan the Terrible to Vladimir Putin); The Impact of Moscow’s Attack on Ukraine on Nations and Regions in the Russian Federation; Deimperialization and Decolonization; and the Prison of Nations after the War and Western Policy Towards Russia.
Attending the conference were representatives of regions that most readers probably have never heard of: Siberia, Cherkessia, Ichkeria (Chechnya), the Pskov Republic, the Laplandia Republic/Murmansk, the Nogai Republic, Don\Kazakia, Tatarstan, Ingria-Latvia, the Moscow Republic, the Kuban, Bashkortostan, Sakha (Yakutia), Königsberg (Kaliningrad), Karelia, Ingushetia, Buryatia, and Idel-Ural. Among the heavy hitters listed on the agenda were Vladislav Inozemtsev, a highly respected Russian economist; Pavlo Klimkin, former Ukrainian Foreign Minister; Edward Lucas, a well-known British analyst; and Janusz Bugajski, a senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation in Washington and author of the recently published “Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture.”
As the Russian liberal website, Meduza, reported: “Practically everyone spoke of genocide. All of them ended by saying that liberation from the oppression of the colonizer (that is, Moscow) would bring about the development of both the separating region and the entire territory that is still officially called Russia.” Following the conference, five participants declared they would hold online referendums on secession in their regions on Feb. 16.
The sentiments may be noble and the venue may be impressive, but who’s to say the Forum represents anyone in the countries concerned? Political émigrés the world over have a long history of making bombastic claims that ultimately amount to nothing. London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna have seen more than their share of self-important princelings and pretenders.
True, but many political émigrés also have struck it rich. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin spent much of his life abroad and returned to a revolutionary Russia only in the spring of 1917, as did Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini spent over 14 years in exile. The Vietnamese communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, was an émigré for much of his early life. Mohandas Gandhi practiced law in South Africa for two decades before returning to India.
In a word, it would be premature to dismiss the Forum as a meaningless émigré conclave. Although the tone of Meduza’s report was skeptical, its reporter did attend and write a lengthy piece, suggesting that the issues that concerned the gathering were worth attention. Putin’s propagandist-in-chief, Vladimir Solovyov, also made fun of the event — a sure sign that he’s worried. As is Putin, who has spent two decades chipping away at the prerogatives of Russia’s non-Russian administrative units. Most recently, he effectively reduced Tatarstan to a mere province of the Federation.
The fact is that, regardless of the Forum’s somewhat exalted self-perceptions and pronouncements, Russia does in fact have a serious problem with its many provinces, autonomous republics, and the like. The country is simply too large for regional dissatisfaction with Moscow and its oftentimes incompetent dictates not to be the order of the day. The only question is when this discontent will translate into attempts at secession.
This is where Putin comes in. Like Mikhail Gorbachev, who fatally wounded the totalitarian Soviet state by means of glasnost and perestroika, so, too, Putin has fatally wounded fascist Russia by means of his genocidal war against Ukraine. Many independent Russian analysts agree that Putin, his regime, and the state are in serious trouble — trouble that will only get worse as the war continues, Russian war dead approach and then exceed 200,000, and defeat appears inescapable.
Russia’s non-Russian nations have borne the brunt of the fatalities thus far. Some Russian commentators suggest they don’t value life as much as urban Russians. But the non-Russians know better than to give credence to such racist views. At some point they will ask whether it’s better to submit to Putin’s destructive schemes or to bolt — not because they will necessarily have been influenced by the Free Nations of Russia Forum, but because secession will be the only guarantee of survival in the deadly chaos that seems to be Russia’s unavoidable future.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”